Only 34% of top-down change initiatives are clearly successful. That means that more than half of organizational change projects fail. However, this success rate jumps to 58% in open-source changes in which employees and higher-level management are both actively engaged in creating the change project. The lack of success in change projects is a mix of management’s failure to continually support the change initiative and employees’ resistance reaction toward the change — often because of a gap in understanding and lack of communication between C-suite executives and entry-level employees.

Without a leader who actively includes employees in the change process, emphasizes the need for the change and articulates how employees will be impacted, a change initiative is simply left untethered. So, as a leader, how can you recognize change resistance and help your employees through it?

What Is It?

Resistance to change (RTC) is characterized as an individual’s response against change that manifests through behaviors like denial, opposition or refusal. It is generally rooted in emotional reactions such as stress. This means that by activating one’s defenses through resistance, this allows a person to suppress the anxiety of change on the conscious level, which then results in a sense of relief.

Employees’ resistance to change also takes the form of active or passive resistance. Active resistance is displayed through employees who are overly critical of the change or use selective facts about the initiative to sabotage it. Passive resistance, however, takes the shape of employees who may appear to support the change but later don’t follow through with implementing changes.

This raises the idea that to support organizational change, change is also needed at the individual level. While management can’t push an individual to embrace change, they can build a foundation of understanding toward employee resistance and choose to walk beside individuals who are struggling with RTC behaviors.

Here are a couple tips to begin your change management journey:

1. Ensure No One Is Left Behind

When preparing for a change in your organization, expect resistance and create a space that examines it before it takes shape. Be proactive and talk to key stakeholders about where resistance may be expected in the project and the objections that employees might have as drivers of their resistance. Using this knowledge can help you and your team to feel prepared when resistance arises, and then be able to act in a constructive way that’s aligned with the change goals.

As a leader, it’s also important to recognize how you can induce resistance in employees. Researchers believe that organizations that discipline employees for failure will create employees who are more change-anxious and therefore less likely to embrace future change projects.

This means that when beginning a change initiative, it’s crucial to have a “no one left behind” mentality as a leader. Through showing your support and excitement for the change project and actively bringing others into that vision by integrating their thoughts and perceptions, this creates a shared vision for the positive impact that an initiative can have on your organization. This has the power to create a social context where apprehensions are examined in a constructive way so that employees won’t feel the need to engage in behaviors of active resistance.

2. Manage Resistance Through Engagement

In a 2019 Prosci study, the most popular root causes of RTC in organizations were:

  • Fear and uncertainty because of past failed changes.
  • Lack of support from management.
  • Lack of inclusion in the change project.
  • Lack of awareness regarding why the change was important.

This list may apply generally to your organization, but it’s also important to consider your personal experience with change and how you’ve witnessed previous change projects unfold to identify and mitigate each root cause. After this, you can create a persuasive case to pitch to employees about why the change is vital to the livelihood of the organization and then work to integrate employee thoughts, attitudes and perceptions into the details of the change project. This takes the shape of roundtable discussions, idea boxes and continually emphasizing the importance of everyone sharing their thoughts on how to fine-tune the change.

In Conclusion

Being apprehensive about any kind of change is a normal emotional and physiological response. A real change champion isn’t a leader who believes their employees shouldn’t wrestle with that emotion, but instead one who is able to positively impact their employees through instilling trust, support and inclusion — before, during and after the change process.

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